Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Is Calvinism Dour?



Gary Brady reported this year on the Banner of Truth conference in Leicester. Describing his journey home, he said

We had a student with us and it was interesting that he had picked up some negativity among men, especially the older ones. I guess we fall into that a bit too easily. I do think generally that Calvinism can tend to put a dour and solemn edge on things. I don't think the Bible itself does that.

In his comments column, I responded


As for Calvinism putting a dour and solemn edge on things; no, I don't think so. I think that edge is there at Banner; but I don't think it's Calvinism that's done it

…and he quite reasonably asks

Hadn't realised how easy it was to be controversial. If Gary Be doesn't blame the Calvinism for Banner dourness (and let's be clear here Banner is also great fun) what is it? Perhaps its methodism (sic)?


It’s a good question. But note that the agreement is in Gary Br’s original comment, ‘Calvinism can tend to put a dour and solemn edge on things. I don’t think the Bible itself does that.’ Now if Calvinism is Biblical-ism in its purest form (and I believe it is) it’s inconsistent to say ‘Calvinism does one thing, the Bible does another.’

And, indeed, Spurgeon’s jollity in a past age, together with the exuberant joy of American Calvinists like Piper and Mahaney, and the joyous nature of the Calvinistic Resurgence documented in ‘Young, Restless and Reformed’ would seem to make the point: Calvinism per se is not dour.

Why then is there a dourness in British Calvinism – a thing I’ve reflected on before? (Oddly enough, I can't find the reflection; if I do, I'll link to it.)  I don’t know the reason – I only suspect. And I suspect it’s the influence of Banner, and that Banner reflects a particular sort of Calvinism.

For one thing, Banner tends to be strongly influenced by Scottish Presbyterians and their Dutch counterparts. I don’t want to make racist slurs, but does either group have a reputation for joy being a national characteristic? Some, at least, of these men go to conference meetings in black suits and dark ties – funeral attire! While I really don’t care what people wear to Christian meetings, if clothes reflect the inner man then no wonder the conference seems dour. Awe and reverence in God’s presence is plainly right – but if ‘awe and reverence’ is equated with staid formality – well, that’s a good synonym for ‘dour’ isn’t it?  And it will show in more than their funeral attire, and it does.

Secondly, it’s very old-fashioned. Until recently, only unaccompanied Psalms were sung. This doesn’t reflect the conviction of Iain Murray, the conference supremo, but was presumably done to keep happy the Presbyterians. Sorry – did I say ‘to keep them happy?’ Well – to keep them coming, anyway. Now the Psalms are brilliant songs of worship; the Scottish Metrical version… well, isn’t. (Or should I say: ‘metrical version the Scottish brilliant isn’t’?) Now, the conference has a piano – and a pianist – and uses them. It even has a song book with some modern songs in (Townend, for example). But at the conferences I’ve been to, these weren’t sung and for the most part at least we stuck to metrical psalms with piano accompaniment. And they’re dour; frankly, they’d be dour even with a rock band and cheerleaders! (Though the experiment would be interesting.)

Thirdly, and I genuinely hesitate to say this, I suspect it reflects the ‘presenting face’ of Lloyd-Jones. I never knew the Doctor; I do believe those who say he had a terrific sense of humour. But the photos show a man who appears to be dour, if not miserable. (I’m sure he wasn’t miserable; I’m only saying you wouldn’t know it from the photos.) He believed in hyper-formality in worship: rebuking a deacon for saying ‘thank you’ when the communion bread and wine was passed to him, refusing to say ‘Good morning’ to his congregation, rejecting the use of modern translations of the Bible and so on. Even if I understand the reasoning behind such things – and I think I do – yet the impression given by them is dour. And if they’re equated with faithfulness to Reformed theology, then the Reformed movement is going to be dour, too.  It isn't necessary to be formal to be faithful; other men take preaching and the salvation of souls every bit as seriously as Lloyd-Jones did.


The resurgence of Calvinistic theology all over the world owes an enormous debt to the Banner of Truth. But in some respects at least, Banner and its conference has tied Reformed theology to ‘traditional ways of doing things’ in a manner which has not been helpful. I do wonder how the Charismatic movement has benefited from the fact that many, many people just do not buy the tie. When I first became eligible to go, and went, to Banner I was genuinely surprised by the men who were not there. And I’ve been disappointed at the relatively low turn-out of younger Reformed men. But I’m afraid some – at least – of the reasons may be reflected in this post. In that respect, I think Banner is failing a generation.

Two things before I close. First, I know that the folks in the Banner office sometimes pick up on blogs that mention them. Brethren, if you pick this up, please take it as observations from a friend. I love you guys – in a dour, reformed kind of way of course.

Second – can’t something be done? Can’t we have a conference of happy Calvinists in Britain that isn’t (exclusively) charismatic?

8 comments:

Gary Brady said...

Thanks for that Gary. Odd thing, I don't really think of Banner as quite a Lloyd-Jones thing. He fell out with John Murray at an early conference and never returned. I'm sorry I used the word dour in some ways, which is pejorative. Generalisations are very difficult -always!

Gary Benfold said...

Yes, I knew about the John Murray/LloydJones thing. That's not the point I was making, though. With or without him at the conference, he has still left his mark on several generations of Reformed men. In many ways, that's a good mark. But not in this way.
As for 'dour' and pejorative: surely you meant it that way? You did after all say that the Calvinism of the conference is dour but the Calvinism of the Bible isn't. That's a criticism, surely - even if a mild and friendly one? (And how could a man like you be anything other than mild and friendly!)

Exiled Preacher said...

I didn't find the conference at all dour, although our attempts at metrical psalm singing were sometimes quite dire. In conversation the natives were friendly and some of the speakers ie O. Palmer R. had us laughing out loud.

charles said...

Thanks Gary for your blog which I have just come across. I can't comment on the BofT Conf as I haven't been for a while but I would suggest that a dour Calvinism may be the result of a fear of man, a fear of change, a fear of leaving our comfort zone, a fear of getting something wrong, an inability to adopt the principles of Scripture to our day and age, a self-righteousness and a mistaken view of reverant worship which by-passes anything remotely joyful to name just a few. I think a love for the past saints came be help but for some a massive hindrance because they cannot abstract their good points and adapt them for today. They want to live in the past. I speak of one who has got the t-shirt.

Young Mr. Brown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Young Mr. Brown said...

I think that there is a fallacy in this post.

Part of my problem is that 'dourness' and 'negativity' are not quite synonymous. (I do realise that it was not you, but Mr. Brady, who first linked the two.)

From that follows my main problem. I can understand how solemnity, (and even, at a pinch, dourness) might be associated with the unaccompanied singing of 17th century settings of the Psalms and the wearing of dark suits.

I cannot, however, see any link at all between the wearing of dark suits and negativity, or even between singing from the Scottish Psalter and negativity.

And to be honest, my own experience of Banner conferences is that while I encountered more negativity than I expected, it was almost exclusively from Englishmen. The Scots I spoke to tended to be fairly cheerful folk.

I suspect that two of main causes of the negativity were discouragement in the work and strong dislike of change.

As for the influence of Lloyd-Jones, I can't comment - but you may have a point.

Gary Benfold said...

Well indeed, young Mr Brown, I wear a dark suit myself at church every Sunday, and I am so (oh, so, so) positive. In and of itself it means nothing. Of itself. We are not dourified by suit alone.

Gary Brady said...

I have enjoyed reading the further comments helping me to clarify my thinking. Yes, I was thinking that dourness had been mistaken for negativity but they are different things and probably the Banner harbours both the dour and the negative. The former is excusable but the latter much less so, The sources of negativity are identified well by Mr Brown.